A young man’s rite of passage and one hell of a travelogue.
When I hitchhiked from England to India in 1997 it took me around four months and I ended up in Goa with about 40 rupees ($1) in my pocket, which was 40 more rupees than I’d had when I’d left England. The journey had been romantic, hellish, transformative and all those other adjectives we use years after the event but in the short term I still didn’t know how I was going to eat the next day.
(go straight to the book)
The only plan I could come up with was to write the book and when some well-wishers bought me a pen and a pad of paper I had no choice but to get stuck in.
My office was the local German Bakery. After a couple of days of watching me order two whole wheat rolls which I dipped in a glass of water, the Nepalese staff refused to take my money. While I forced myself to write 2000 words a day, the waiters occasionally slipped me a cinnamon roll or a cappuccino when the boss wasn’t looking.
A friend let me type the book up on his laptop but I almost lost the manuscript when I left it under a palm tree and went to haggle for a coconut. I turned to see a cow chewing on a corner of my note pad and only the sight of the fruit lady wielding a machete convinced to find lunch elsewhere.
By the end of the season the first draft was written, typed and printed on 40 sheets of paper, 2500 words a page to save on the price of ink. It was a little ill-considered though as I ended up selling photocopies of the manuscript in the Himalayas for $5 a time – many backpackers went blind through reading it.
The next season I was back in Goa and borrowed money for a real print run and an old freak called Robin Brown with 30 years of travel under his belt took it on himself to whip my book into shape. He swore at me on practically every page and weeded out much of the arrogant prose of a cocky 20 year old. But he almost flipped when I used sexual imagery to describe the dome and minaret of the mosques I’d seen.
‘Baba, you can’t say that – you’ll have a fatwa on your head in no time!’
I was too young to know any better but fortunately I took his word for it most of the time. It was only a couple of years later that I realised just how much he’d saved my neck.
Before I knew it I had 500 copies of Hand to Mouth to India taking up most of my room.
‘What have I done?’ I lamented.
The book launch at a café on the beach went slowly with only 17 copies sold but after that I took things on the offensive, dancing around the weekly flea market with a copy in each hand, asking people if they wanted to hear a good story. I sold in cafes, at trance parties and on the beach. The result was that in three weeks I managed to move around 150 books and I was in the money for the first time in a year and a half.
Word spread like wildfire and I became a little famous for the first time in my life. People came up to me in the jungle at night and asked me if I was that writer they’d heard about – and did I happen to have a copy of my book on me? Holding my torch between my teeth, I’d ask them their name and sign them a copy, before disappearing back into the darkness.
The crowning moment, though, was when a German guy asked me if I’d heard about this crazy English boy who had walked all the way from Europe to India. I was tempted to leave him with the Chinese whispers but the opportunity was too good to miss selling him a book.
I then set off with as many books as I could carry to Israel, hitching through Turkey and Syria on the way, dying of fever and unable to hoist my rucksack into the trucks.
It was beginning to dawn on me that life as a travelling bookshop had its disadvantages but it really became clear in the Israeli customs hall – my Indian rucksack tore in half and 56 copies of Hand to Mouth to India fluttered all over the floor. To their credit, the customs officials checked every single page of every single book, both on entering and leaving Israel. Maybe they thought I was importing sheets of blotter acid. I was damn sure the first self-published author to arrive through the Allenby Bridge from Jordan.
Hand to Mouth to India became something like a resume for me for a while. In Israel it got me on TV, for a program about hitchhiking and across the country Israelis just back from India thought they were having flashbacks when they recognized me on the screen. I stayed for a while with the director in Tel Aviv and I could always be introduced as the ‘author’ rather than the lost vagabond.
I moved on to England to see whether a friend had kept his promise to put some copies in a head shop in Portobello Road. I’d just given up scanning the shelves of Alchemy and was on my way out when the owner, Lee Harris, asked if I might have brought something back?
Only then I remembered that I had once sold him a few boxes of bindis I’d brought back from my first trip to India. We got talking and, he was so inspired by the sight of the book, he wondered if he might publish it – he’d recently got involved with publishing a counter-culture comic book.
I had to wait around a year before it came to fruition and then I was required to give a couple of interviews and schmooze with the local underground celebrities. The best was on Greater London Radio; I’d arrived back from Amsterdam by overnight bus that morning and rolled along to the studios just in time. The presenter was some arrogant twat whose name I don’t remember but before we went live, he let me know he’d been voted Travel Writer of the Previous Year. Just to let me know who I was dealing with.
The interview began and he started asking me if it had been moral to go all that way with no money, taking food from poor people. Had I been more alert I might have asked him if his whining liberality bothered him when he sniffed cocaine made on the backs of Colombian peasants. Or I might have asked him whether being poor eliminates your right to give hospitality. Instead I confused him and myself with some rambling explanation of the need to leave your own culture at home when you travel, that hospitality is one of the greatest joys in Muslim countries, and that there are more kinds of remuneration than merely the financial.
Not a terrible answer but in the entire interview I forgot to plug the book. He ended the session by playing Don’t go to Goa and completely blanked me until I left the studio.
It was almost impossible to get any reviews in print, except for a short piece in Time Out. They weren’t quite sure what to make of my unorthodox perspectives but declared:
Thumb’s erratic self-awareness can be entertaining at times…
The books went out to the shops and the airports with almost no publicity but still around 1500 from the original 2000 sold. Too slow to be worth a reprint but just enough to cover all of Lee Harris’ costs. I saw about 300 quid from it and some meals and train tickets but I was now officially a published author. At the very least I had a good answer to give immigration officials the next time they asked me what I did for a living.
Sometimes when I look back at the youthful prose of Hand to Mouth to India, I shake my head. By turns, opinionated, innocent and angry, I wonder how anyone put up with me when I was 20, much less fed me. Yet there’s still the courage, the humour and the imagination that had got me through the journey and the writing of the book. I’m finally beginning to see my younger self with some understanding and forgiveness, though – after all, if I can’t accept myself in the past, I’m not likely to be able to do it now either.
By a conservative estimate I reckon a few thousand people must have read the book and it feels like sowing a few wild seeds in the collective unconscious. I still get 3 or 4 emails a year from someone who’s just come across a copy and who’s now inspired to get on the road.
Read chapter one